Recent Developments for California Offshore Wind

May 26, 2022

Downey Brand Energy Publication

On May 5, 2022, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) completed its environmental review of potential impacts from offshore wind energy leasing activities in the Humboldt Wind Energy Area (WEA), located 20 miles offshore of the northernmost part of California. Based on its analysis, BOEM issued a finding of no significant impact. If developed, the Humboldt WEA could provide up to 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy to the grid, supplying the power needs of approximately 560,000 homes.

BOEM’s Environmental Analysis

BOEM conducted this environmental review as part of the Biden administration’s goal of deploying 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030, including 4.6 GW in the Western Outer Continental Shelf. In May 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom, the Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl announced an agreement to advance areas for wind energy development off the northern and central coasts of California, focusing on the Humboldt call area and the Morro Bay call area. In October 2021, Secretary Haaland announced the administration’s plan to auction off up to seven offshore wind leases around the U.S. by 2025, including the Humboldt WEA and Morro Bay WEA. BOEM then conducted an environmental review of the Humboldt WEA, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). BOEM’s Environmental Assessment considered potential impacts on the nearly 132,369 acres (206.8 square miles) in the Humboldt WEA from the issuance of leases and the routine activities associated with site assessment and characterization on those leases. The EA found no significant environmental impact from issuing leases for sites within the area.

BOEM is currently performing an environmental review of the Morro Bay WEA, which could bring up to 3 GW of clean energy to the grid if developed. BOEM anticipates issuing up to three leases, covering up to 240,898 acres, as part of the Morro Bay WEA lease sale. Public comment on the draft EA closed on May 16.

California Regulatory Agency Activities

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) is playing an active role in assessing the effects of leasing activities in the Humboldt WEA and the Morro Bay WEA. On January 24, 2022, and in compliance with Section 930.34 et seq. of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Federal Consistency Regulations, BOEM submitted to the CCC its consistency determination (CD) for leasing activities associated with future offshore wind development in the Humboldt WEA. The CD primarily analyzes the effects of lease exploration activities, such as site characterization and assessment, but does not describe or consider potential impacts related to future construction and operation of any commercial wind power facilities. On April 7, the CCC voted unanimously to conditionally concur with BOEM’s CD. The CCC found the proposed activities to be consistent with the California Coastal Management Program (CCMP), provided that BOEM agrees to modify its site characterization and assessment activities in accordance with seven conditions: Condition 1 requires BOEM to work with CCC staff to ensure that lessees’ survey, sampling and analysis plans are coordinated to minimize impacts to coastal resources; Condition 2 requires lessees to avoid intentional contact with hard substrate, rock outcroppings, and seamounts of deep-sea coral/sponge habitats; Condition 3 requires vessels conducting site research not exceed a speed of 10 knots to avoid unintentional strikes of sea mammals; Condition 4 requires BOEM to ensure commercial fishing vessels safe navigation through the lease areas; Conditions 5 and 6 require engagement with environmental justice communities and Native communities on site assessment and construction and operations plans; and Condition 7 requires lessees to have an independent fisheries liaison to work with the commercial fishing community to make sure site assessment activities don’t conflict with local fisheries. For more information about the CCC’s concurrence with BOEM’s CD, see California Offshore Wind Gains Momentum with Two Key Milestones-in-April/.

On April 15, BOEM submitted its CD for the Morro Bay WEA to the CCC. On May 20, the CCC released its Staff Report recommending that the CCC conditionally concur that the proposed leasing and lease activities within the Morro Bay WEA are consistent with the CCMP, provided that BOEM meets the same seven conditions as the CCC required for the Humboldt WEA. Accordingly, the CCC will hold a hearing on BOEM’s proposed leasing of the Morro Bay WEA on June 8. Comments on the Staff Report are due by 5:00 p.m. on June 3.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is also actively engaged in examining the potential for offshore wind within the state. Assembly Bill 525 (AB 525, Chiu, Chapter 231, Statutes of 2021) requires the CEC to develop a strategic plan for offshore wind energy developments installed off the California coast in federal waters and submit the strategic plan to the California Natural Resources Agency and the Legislature by no later than June 30, 2023. AB 525 also requires the CEC to, among other things, evaluate and quantify the maximum feasible capacity of offshore wind to achieve reliability, ratepayer, employment, and decarbonization benefits and to establish offshore wind planning goals for 2030 and 2045 by no later than June 1, 2022.

On May 6, 2022, the CEC released a draft report, which established a preliminary planning goal of 3 GW by 2030, and 10 GW to 15 GW by 2045. The 3 GW would presumably come from a complete build-out of the Morro Bay WEA or a combination of a partial build-out of the Morro Bay WEA and Humboldt WEA. The CEC will also evaluate an additional 7 GW to 12 GW of offshore wind for 2045. Comments on the draft report were submitted on May 16.

CEC Commissioner Kourtney Vaccaro conducted a workshop on May 18 to discuss the draft report, including the CEC staff’s proposed findings and recommendations addressing the requirements of AB 525. Comments on the workshop were submitted on May 23. The CEC planned to adopt a revised draft report during its May 24 Business Meeting. However, on May 23, the CEC informed the public that in light of new information submitted during the workshop and public comment opportunity, including recommendations to establish higher offshore wind planning goals for 2030 and 2045 than those in the draft report, the CEC would not adopt the draft report at its May 24 meeting. Instead, the CEC will now conduct a public workshop to examine this new information and consider possible changes to the draft report’s recommendations for offshore wind planning goals for 2030 and 2045. The CEC did not provide a timeline, but it seems unlikely that the agency will meet the June 1, 2022, deadline. These preliminary planning goals, when finally adopted, will inform the development of a strategic plan for floating offshore wind in federal waters off the coast of California.

Next Steps

BOEM intends to conduct a combined lease sale auction of the Humboldt WEA and the Morro Bay WEA in the fall of 2022.  BOEM will then develop an Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA to analyze the project-specific environmental and socioeconomic consequences of the lease sales, in consultation with Tribes and appropriate federal, state, and local agencies, and with participation by stakeholders and the public. BOEM’s leases will allow lessees to perform geophysical, geotechnical, and biological surveys and will permit site assessment activities, including the temporary placement of metocean buoys and oceanographic devices. After BOEM’s lessees complete surveys and site assessment activities, the lessees can submit a construction and operations plan (COP) to develop a lease. The submission of a COP starts the federal environmental review process for specific wind development projects and will require BOEM’s lessees to receive consistency certifications from the CCC prior to BOEM’s approval of any further development.